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December 17, 2003

This teacher's hands talk

From: The Free Lance-Star, VA - Dec 17, 2003

Stafford County school teacher learns sign language years before a chance hearing test reveals that she has a hearing impairment.


A very country version of "Jingle Bell Rock" blasts through a boombox, and dozens of little hands fly into action. Fingers loop and bend and flutter. They twist and turn. Move up, down.

The hands dance. The hands speak.

On this December afternoon, three dozen youngsters have entered another world, into the silent culture of the deaf.

But the Grafton Village Elementary children hardly seem conscious of this as they follow their teacher who, at 38, is still a kid herself.

What the children know is that this is fun. Sign language is fun, and if they keep at it, they might grow up to help people who can't hear.

Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock, jingle bell swing and jingle bell ring.

The children, who range from grades kindergarten through fifth grade, can hear the music and the twangy lyrics. Some try to sing along.

Snowin' and blowin' up bushels of fun, now the jingle bell hop's begun.

The hands, with their elegant and sometimes awkward movements, are for people who can't hear.

The children, who coined themselves "Sounds of Silence," are practicing for a concert.

Without Randy Travis on the boombox, these signs would remain a mystery to most of the parents who line the back of Grafton's cafeteria, proudly watching their children grow more and more proficient in American Sign Language.

ASL is part of the Foreign Language Exploratory program offered at area elementary schools. Some schools offer Spanish, German or Japanese. Grafton, in Stafford County, offers ASL. The class meets twice a week after school.

"He loves it," says Laurie Baxter, whose eyes briefly glance away from her 9-year-old son Austen. "He has a good time. He likes to show us the songs."

ASL teacher ReBecca Bennett is at the center of it all. Small and energetic, she stands on the cafeteria stage, in front of a blue velvet curtain, and leads her choir of signing youngsters.

She bends her knees, taps her feet, rolls her shoulders and sways with the music.

"Enjoy it!" shouts Bennett, smiling. "Two of you are lookin' like you're dead!"

Her voice is clear and strong and musical. It's hard to believe Bennett herself is hearing impaired, and probably has been most of her life.

About 6 years ago, she went to a women's health day sponsored by the Marine Corps. Her husband, a Marine, wanted Bennett to get her sight checked.

"The line was long, so I got my hearing checked instead," she says. The test revealed that she was hearing impaired.

A pair of hearing aids later, Bennett learned that people don't speak like the grown-ups in Charlie Brown's world.

Turns out, she would almost prefer if they did sometimes.

"There are things I don't have to hear that you guys have to hear. It's easier to read your lips if I don't like the way you sound. There are a lot of benefits to it," Bennett explains.

She already knew ASL, had learned it as a child, in fact.

"I had a friend who did it. I thought it was cool she talked with her hands. We connected." And Bennett learned.

As an adult, she taught autistic children, incorporating sign language. Her boss noticed and asked if she'd like to work with deaf convicts.

"I gladly accepted. It was a blast. My first day, I was addressed in a rather surprising manner and learned a few colorful words. My fascination grew."

Bennett has studied and mingled with the deaf community since that day over 16 years ago.

She started teaching her son Craig's peers ASL five years ago. Cerebral palsy impairs his speech, and signing makes it easier for them to understand.

Today, Bennett teaches 16 classes each semester and loves it. She loves watching her students signing in the hallways, hearing parents tell stories of their children signing with a deaf person they met in a restaurant.

Bennett teaches children that there is more to this language than words. There is a history and a culture. There are tones and emotions in the hands and face just as there are in a hearing person's voice.

Students feed off Bennett's enthusiasm as she dances in place, face full of expression, auburn ponytail flying.

"She makes everything fun," says 10-year-old Katherine Davis.

"I just started. It's pretty cool, actually," adds Alex Newton, 9. "We get to play games, so I memorize it. She's fun."

This is the second and third semester of ASL for many of the children. The first-timers are certain they'll be back for another class.

Copyright 2003, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co. of Fredericksburg, Va.